This is a very difficult post to write. It's a politician's responsibility to consider long term consequences alongside instinctive short term humanitarian responses. Doing what is right can sometimes not be the same as that which constituents are calling for. Responding to the plight of vulnerable refugee children in France (and other European states) is just such an issue, and a major challenge for our Government.
Like many MPs I have received emails, perhaps 30 or so (mostly as part of a lobbyist's campaign) asking that I pressurise the Government into giving vulnerable unaccompanied children who are currently in France a home in the UK. And vote accordingly. I'd love to agree, but I cannot, because it would be the wrong thing to do.
I have long called for the Government to allow more Syrian refugees into the UK. And long before a photograph of a little boy drowned on a beach touched our national consciousness. I accept that we have to be very wary of terrorist sympathisers taking advantage of the 'cover' provided by refugees, but I do think we could and should do more. Many people disagree with me on this issue.
However, I do want to acknowledge that the Govt has listened to calls from MPs, the House of Lords and the public about the relocation of unaccompanied children from within Europe. The Govt tells me it has considered how best the UK can provide assistance and protection to unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and other regions of conflict, and to those already in Europe.
Identifying and responding to the needs of vulnerable and at risk refugee children must be a clear priority for any government. The starting principle must be that the best interests of children are put first, and any policy that places children at additional risk or encourages them to place their lives in the hands of the people traffickers and criminal gangs must be avoided. In any response, it is vital not to inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead, putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous sea crossings to Europe. We must never inadvertently help the criminal traffickers.
Since the beginning of the conflict in a Syria, my view has been that the UK should respond to the desperate tragedy arising from conflict in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) by taking in more refugees. Even though any resettlement programme by the UK can only make a minuscule impact on a humanitarian problem of such a scale. I am pleased that the Govt has just announced the launch of a new resettlement scheme to resettle ‘Children at Risk’ from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It's important that we set an example to the world. But let us not pretend it's anything but a drop in the ocean. There are millions of refugees in camps on the Syrian border. They are huge numbers being slaughtered or just starved to death. There are 10 million displaced Syrians. It is a tragedy almost beyond comprehension.
On the UNHCR’s recommendation, the new UK scheme will not just target unaccompanied children, but will extend to all ‘Children at Risk’ as defined by the UNHCR. And it will extend to 'at risk' groups and nationalities within the region, not limited to Syrians. Through this category the UK will resettle the most vulnerable children accompanied by their families where the UNHCR deems resettlement is in the best interests of the child. Several hundred individuals will be resettled in the first year. 3000 will be resettled over the lifetime of this Parliament, most of them children. This will be in addition to the resettlement of 20,000 Syrians under the Syrian resettlement scheme already agreed.
There are several other UK initiatives as well. For example, experts in dealing with people trafficking will be sent to Greece to support vulnerable groups, including children. This will ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible. This is in addition to the work undertaken by the Anti- Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to visit hotspots and assess what more can be done to ensure unaccompanied children are protected from traffickers.
And the Department for International Development (DFID) has created a £10 million Refugee Children Fund specifically to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. This will be used to support the UNHCR, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee. The overall aim will be to help children reunite with family wherever possible.
I fully support Government action to tackle the global refugee crisis, in particular by helping children at risk. And I fully support taking action where it has the most impact in region. I agree with all those who have emailed me about the importance of helping vulnerable children, and offering more opportunity to come to live in the UK. But the greatest need by far is to help vulnerable children in the MENA region.
UPDATE The House of Commons comfortably defeated what is called the Dubs amendment which proposed bringing unaccompanied refugee children into the UK from France. I have received genuinely offensive communications from a few who seem not to realise the amount of thought and preparation which supports my position. I do think the Dubs amendment has helped the position, leading to Govt willingness to work with the UN to take in more refugees from the camps, where millions are living in appalling conditions. I cannot support taking refugees in from France, which is a sympathetic country, inadvertently giving encouragement to traffickers sending refugees to death in the Med, at the same time as moving our focus from the millions being killed, starved in camps on the Syrian border. And if Im to be condemned for that, so be it.